Why You Should Write a Memoir (It May Not be Why You Think)

By Jerry Payne

November 8, 2016

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People have all manner of reasons for writing a memoir (or their memoirs). If you’re reading this article, you may have your own reasons. Maybe you’re writing your memoirs because you want some record of your life to survive you after death, a lasting mark that you were here, something your grandkids and potentially great-great-grandkids might one day read. Well, that’s a fine reason.

Maybe you’re writing your memoirs because, over the years, you’ve learned some very important things about life that you think others might be able to benefit from hearing, lessons you learned the hard way. Maybe yours is a cautionary tale. Or maybe you have a story of inspiration to share. Maybe you’re thinking of writing a memoir because you’re trying to make sense of a tragedy. Or maybe you just feel like your life would make more sense somehow if you saw it in print. Maybe you’re retired and you just want a nice, neat collection of all the successes (and failures?) from your long and storied career. Maybe your story can help advance a social or political cause that’s important to you. Or maybe you’ve lived a life you know others would be intensely curious about—that of a combat veteran, leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang, circus performer, porn star, drug addict, sports celebrity. Maybe you feel the need to tell your side of a story that someone else has publicly characterized wrongly, maybe even egregiously so. Maybe you just want people to understand you better.

Or maybe you want to understand yourself better.

These are all legitimate reasons, and while ghostwriting two dozen or so memoirs, I’ve heard every one of these and more. But that last one...that might be the best reason of all. Maybe you want to understand yourself better. “We do not write in order to be understood,” the English poet Cecil Day-Lewis once said. “We write in order to understand.” No matter what reason you have for writing your memoir, I’ll guarantee one thing: if you write honestly, if you really plumb the depths of your own story, if you seek to tell the account of your life (or some part of your life) as objectively and truthfully as you can, you’re going to learn something about yourself in the process. Something you never knew before.

Here’s what’s really interesting. Writing an honest memoir requires self-awareness, and self-awareness is often the result of writing an honest memoir. It might seem like a catch-22, but it’s not. The writing feeds off the honesty, and the honesty, in turn, feeds off the writing. It’s a beautiful symbiosis. And it is in that symbiosis that you can learn something about yourself, something important, something you never knew before. I’ve never had a single client who, somewhere along the course of writing his or her memoir, didn’t have at least one aha! moment. Something epiphanic always occurs. Something hidden becomes revealed. Always. And I would submit that it is in that aha! moment (or aha! moments) that you have every reason you ever need to write a memoir.

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